Research on colour

I have taken a short break from studying History of Art primarily as I have been researching for my textiles course which I am doing simultaneously also also to deal with some aspects of my business and both are relevant to this blog post – the research has been on colour and this in turn has lead to some historical facts that tie in very nicely with 15-17th Century art.

Being aware of keeping the two courses separate means two very different blog posts which is ideal in this case because of being able to consider my research in two very different contexts.

As part of the exercises on Assignment 3 there are two Dutch portraits to effectively try and recreate and also mention throughout the assignment of the pigments used by the Renaissance and Baroque artists.

The artists of the Renaissance period had very few pigments to work with and hence their skill lay in the use of the strong contrasts light and shadow (chiaroscuro) particularly considering their pigments generally lacked the intensity of colour we have today.

One artist firm in the USA (Gamblin Artists Colours) uses a three dimensional colour wheel which effectively groups the colours into their families (blues, reds, yellows etc) and then into their intensity and also their value (how light and dark the colour is).  The colours of the Renaissance period fall very near what Gamblin term the neutral core whereby the intensity of their pigments was low but you can use the value of the pigments to great effect – also the pigments were usually earth based and mixed with tempera or later oil.

vermeer the milkmaid

The artists of the time also used the techniques of complementary colours – Vermeer used blues and yellows in the painting illustrated (The Milkmaid of 1658-60) in one article I discovered (by Will Kemp Art School) but in a split complementary scheme.  This simple but effective technique allowed for having access to very few pigments but still drawing the eye into the painting and later Van Gogh used the same technique as well as simultaneous contrast (whereby when two colours  can appear differently dependent firstly on the colours used and secondly on what they are placed next to).

bacchus and ariadneAnother technique used by the Renaissance painters was that of using warm and cool colours to bring paintings to life – again using complementary colours and this can be seen in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne  with his use of orange and blue which is used around the whole painting.  The way Titian has composed the piece with the balance of colours creates both harmony and vibrancy – the contrast brings life to the work which in terms complements the use of light and shadow.

Both of these pieces use similar colours – the use of blue and orange but Vermeer uses the yellow-orange instead of pure orange (the split-complementary) and Titian there is the pure orange of both the robe and the use of raw sienna (orange family) in the figures as well as the trees and ground which complements the more vibrant blues.

The way our eyes perceive simultaneous contrast is because if you place a grey next to say an orange it will take on a slight tint to our sight even though we know it is still grey.  In Titian’s piece above the horizon is muted as the techniques concerning perspective were mastered and this gave a naturalism to the scene but in addition the figures and the oranges become more vibrant and alive to the viewer.  When I look at the piece now I say a very restrained colour palette which makes sense considering the limited number of pigments available at the time but the skill of the artist means even now you do not notice this immediately.

Colour mixes of the time were passed down the generations and were generally kept secret – most artists ground their own pigments which now would be inconceivable.

So to go back to the exercise in mind the colours available at the time were burnt umber, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt sienna and red ochre or Naples yellow, raw sienna, Venetian or Indian red, terre verte with a white and black – the black was essential because a common mistake amongst artists is to think it will make a painting dull but in fact it adds the contrast that is often needed to bring the work to life.

Understanding the colours for me is now key to understanding the paintings  of the periods as that for me is where a huge interest lies and will enable me to translate my interest in History of Art into my textiles.


Gamblin R (date unknown). Navigating Colour Space [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown).  How to balance warm and cool colours[online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown).  How to choose a basic portrait painting palette for oils [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown).  How to choose a basic acrylic palette for colour mixing [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown).  How to choose a paint starter set for beginners [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown).  How to paint a warm & cool still life painting [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown). The 3 tricks of complementary colours you can learn from Van Gogh [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016]. Available at:

Kemp W (date unknown).  The Importance of Contrast in Painting [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016].  Available at:



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